To limit climate change, it’s critical to protect tropical forests. But forest preservation efforts in Central America face a formidable foe: the illegal drug trade.

“Narcodeforestation … refers to deforestation that somehow can be attributed to the activity of drug-trafficking organizations,” says Bernardo Aguilar-González of the Neotropica Foundation of Costa Rica.

Aguilar-González studies the problem, and he says U.S. crackdowns on drug smuggling have driven traffickers into protected forested areas. There, they can more easily evade law enforcement.

Then they cut down trees so trucks and private planes can transport drugs in and out.

“You actually can put landing strips that are located in areas that would be hard to detect,” he says.

Traffickers also clear swaths of forest for farming and ranching businesses that they create in order to launder drug money.

Research shows that in protected areas of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, between 30 and 60% of forest loss is likely associated with cocaine trafficking.

So Aguilar-González says drug trafficking and deforestation must be understood as interconnected problems and solved together.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.